An artist puts a face on Venice Beach's homeless
Psychologist Stuart Perlman paints faces — of individuals whom most people look past. Over the last two years, his forceful brush strokes have captured the angst and mettle of dozens of homeless people along Venice Beach, Calif.
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — When he heads to the beach from his Santa Monica, Calif., home, Stuart Perlman wears paint-spattered jeans, a plaid shirt over a T-shirt and a black wool Stetson to shade his bearded face.
With one hand he rolls a plastic crate piled high with paints, brushes, a portable easel and a yellow-and-white-striped beach umbrella. In the other, he totes plastic bags filled with containers of homemade pastas and soups, gifts for his "regulars."
Perlman is a psychologist. In his spare time he paints faces — of individuals whom most people look past. Over the last two years, his forceful brush strokes have captured the angst and mettle of dozens of homeless people along Venice Beach, Calif.
As he paints, occasionally against the backdrop of a beach-side knife fight or drug deal, he slips into the role of itinerant therapist. "I want to hear about your life," he says. Before long, the posers reveal details of lost loves, thwarted dreams and battles with addiction.
Take Daniel, whose portrait conveys weariness and loss. The onetime workaholic's world crumbled a dozen years ago when a drunken driver killed his wife and children.
Or "Doc," whose image suggests anxiety and struggle. The former mental-health care worker gave his worldly goods to a daughter seven years ago and headed west from Arkansas.
And Aftin, a moon-faced 20-year-old whose painting captures her neon-hued plumage and sun-scorched skin. She professes to be happier bunking down outdoors with other self-described "travelers" than being bored back home in Tennessee.
These wandering souls have touched Perlman's heart and reminded him of life's fragility.
"People are people," Perlman said. "We're all them, and they're all us. We're all one thin line from being traumatized and homeless."
Perlman took up painting seriously about five years ago, after his father died. He took art classes at Santa Monica College and a YWCA.
With a budding artist's perspective, he began to scrutinize the homeless people he encountered near his home and his West Los Angeles office. In their weathered faces, he sensed stories that needed telling. As a psychologist, he thought, he could reveal these forgotten souls to others as a reminder that "there but for the grace of God go I."
Perlman, who counsels trauma survivors, had to spend months persuading distrustful people to sit for him. "They thought I was a cop for the first few months," he said. "Now, I'm a little bit of a celebrity among the homeless."
That could have something to do with his paying them $20 each to pose. He also gives $10 if they create for him an original poem or painting.
He has completed about 65 18-by-24-inch paintings; each took 15 to 25 hours.
Perlman usually starts a portrait at the beach and finishes from photographs at an easel in his kitchen, in a style he calls "representational post-Impressionist." Some faces have sad eyes. Some have loopy grins. Some of his subjects hide behind their hair or flaunt lip, nose and eyebrow piercings.
Perlman has invested in video equipment and is editing interviews with his subjects for a documentary. He also plans to produce a photo book, incorporating their personal stories and creative works. If the projects eventually generate income and he can recoup some of his costs, he intends to donate proceeds to nonprofit groups that serve the homeless.
For one recent excursion, Perlman fills his 1999 Infiniti I-30 with food, painting supplies and a dozen of his favorite portraits and drives the two miles to Venice Beach.
In a parking lot at the foot of Rose Avenue, Perlman greets Kemberly "Doc" Jordan, dressed in black pants with the cuffs rolled up, a Big Lots T-shirt, a Kobe Bryant 24 Lakers jersey and a camouflage hat with an "Eat Me" patch.
Jordan's hands are gnarled and his nails split. His front teeth are missing, making him look older than his 53 years. He lives on the beach in a tent fashioned of umbrellas, tucked behind giant garbage bins. He earns money fixing bikes.
Perlman hands him a container of blended vegetable soup. "Healthy, no salt," Perlman says.
A few months ago, thugs beat Jordan and stomped on his face. When Perlman saw the injuries, he went to a drugstore and bought hydrogen peroxide, bandages and first-aid tape.
When Jordan's wife, Lillian, was on her deathbed, she told him to follow his dream. Seven years ago, he made his way to Venice, which he had first seen in 1963. "It felt like my grandmother hugged me," he says of encountering the beach and boardwalk. "This is where I was gonna live and die."
Perlman, 58, has undergone more than three decades of therapy to address his own harrowing childhood. Although he was part of a "nice, Jewish family," Perlman said, his parents often lashed out at him and his four brothers and sisters.
"I was traumatized, cruelly beaten and smashed up, yet deeply loved and taken good care of," Perlman said.
"My parents would have given their lives for me, but they were the people most likely to kill me," he said. "It's that combination that makes me who I am."
In Perlman's home office, portraits are stacked in high cubbies and against walls. He regrets ever having ignored the transients he has come to know and like. "They're some of the most interesting people I've ever met in my life," he said. "I had truly been judging the book by its cover."
The high regards are mutual. Even though he has painted Jordan's portrait twice, Perlman continues to seek him out, just to chat. Maybe it's the portraits, maybe it's the blended soup, maybe it's just that somebody paid attention, but Jordan is always happy to see him.